The LA Times sheds additional light on the complex question of America’s founding and the religious ideals of historical figures in this piece. Author John M. Barry described Roger Williams breaking away from the Massachusetts Pilgrims to found Rhode Island, quoting his view of religious liberty:
[even] “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships” [should be allowed to pray or not pray]
“forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”
Williams is notable because he stands in stark contrast to John Winthrop who is the source of the “city upon a hill” that is a common reference point in presidential aspirational speeches:
For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us
Yet, for all that shiny exceptionalism, Puritans believed slavery was justified by the Old Testament, harassed and executed Quakers, reviled one another as heretics, and believed that God had killed Native Americans using smallpox to give the land to the Puritans:
But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.
The goal of a GOP candidate using the “hill” quote is to invoke the ghost of Reagan. Sadly, the important historical lessons about tolerance and the evolutionary seeds of our modern understanding of the ethics of freedom get lost when it becomes jingoistic.
I’m deep in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s also only about the third book I’ve tried to read exclusively on the iPad, but I am finally getting used to the platform. The core thesis of Pinker’s book is something that I have been experimentally testing on people for several years: our moral facilities and decision-making are gradually improving. For Pinker, the thesis is built up elaborately from basic estimates of death rates due to war and homicide between non-state societies and state societies. It comes with an uncomfortable inversion of the nobility of the savage mind: primitive people had a lot to fight about and often did.
My first contact with the notion that morality is changing and improving was with Richard Dawkin’s observation in The God Delusion that most modern Westerners feel very uncomfortable with the fire bombing of Tokyo in World War II, the saturation bombing of Hanoi, nuclear attack against civilian populations, or treating people inhumanely based on race or ethnicity. Yet that wasn’t the case just decades ago. More moral drift can be seen in changing sentiments concerning the rights of gay people to marry. Experimentally, then, I would ask, over dinner or conversation, about simple moral trolley experiments and then move on to ask whether anyone would condone nuclear attack against civilian populations. There is always a first response of “no” to the latter, which reflects a gut moral sentiment, though a few people have agreed that it may be “permissible” (to use the language of these kinds of dilemmas) in response to a similar attack and when there may be “command and control assets” mixed into the attack area. But that gentle permissibility always follows the initial revulsion.
Pinker’s book suggested another type of experimental simulation, however. In it he describes how the foraging behavior of many chimpanzees in sparse woods results in males often traveling alone at the edges of their populations. Neighboring groups of chimps will systematically kill these loners when they have a 3-to-1 advantage of numbers. I’m curious if the sparseness of resources and population is at the heart of the violence, and that the same occurs with the violence patterns of hunter gatherers. If so, it seems plausible to try to simulate the evolution of moral behavior as population density and interconnectedness increases. When population density is low and there are memes/genes that trade off cooperation against raiding for resources, the raiding genes maintain in an equilibrium against cooperating with ingroup members. As population increases, the raiding genes simply die out because it is a non-zero sum game to cooperate.
There is an enormous amount of variability possible in a simulation like this, but I suspect that, given almost any initial starting conditions, morality is simply inevitable.